Carlie: Hey there. It’s Carlie with the Expat Focus podcast, and in this episode I’m talking to Jonathan Brown, an American who is carving out a location-independent life while basing himself in Singapore.
Jonathan originally moved to Asia to work for LinkedIn, and he has since published a book for young professionals looking to take their own careers abroad, called The World is Your Home. So what is life like as an expat in Singapore and what sort of cultural challenges can you expect? Jonathan’s going to share his insights.
So Jonathan, tell me, to start with, why did you leave the United States? And I’m assuming Singapore is the first place you decided to live abroad?
Jonathan: Hmm, that’s correct. So for me, it was actually always a long-standing goal of mine to move abroad, and specifically to Asia, because I’ve always been fascinated by the diverse mix of cultures here – the food, the people, and there’s just so many fascinating places to visit. So it’s always been a goal of mine, even since I was young. But after about three, three-and-a-half years of working in the enterprise software business in the US, I thought it’d be very interesting to get involved in a similar line of business over in Asia, because the economy is rapidly expanding here, there’s a lot of new opportunities in tech-related fields. So I thought, “Now would be the perfect time to move out here.”
So I moved out to Singapore about two-and-a-half years ago, been here ever since, and I’m really glad that I made the move.
Carlie: So deciding to make the move and actually moving – what was involved in that process? Did you find it as easy as you anticipated?
Jonathan: Yeah. In some respects, I found it actually pretty challenging. One thing that’s quite challenging is when you’re in any country, and you’re especially halfway around the world, and you’re trying to find a job in a different country, and you don’t have a network in that country, it can be pretty challenging. So what I had to do is I had to do a lot of deep networking, both within my community in Austin, Texas, which is kind of right in the center of the US, and then I also had to do a lot of networking just online, through reaching out to people on LinkedIn, on Twitter, starting conversations there. And that helped surface a lot of the professional opportunities that were available over in Singapore.
Carlie: And would you say LinkedIn was really key to you finding a job or did you find those in-person networks in your home city actually helped more?
Jonathan: It was kind of funny, the way that I actually got the job. I ended up working at LinkedIn in Singapore for about two, two-and-a-half years. And the way that I got that job was through some networking I had done years prior. I actually found out about the position through a former colleague of mine. And it really drove home to me the importance of not only networking within your company, no matter where you are, but also of maintaining those relationships and also networking with people that are in your company’s alumni network. So people that are working at your organization, that have since moved on, oftentimes, that’s one of the best ways to learn about new opportunities.
Carlie: Yeah, and you never know what one person might know of, in terms of an opportunity and where it might lead.
Jonathan: Exactly. And so it was funny – I put in so much effort networking online, and in person, at different events and things like that, and ultimately, the whole opportunity, it came about through an organic relationship that had been forged years prior.
Carlie: So once you accepted your job at LinkedIn in Singapore, did you get a lot of support to help with the relocation?
Jonathan: Yeah. LinkedIn is a great company to work for, in the sense that they take care of their employees very well, they really encourage the importance of work-life balance and things like that. They did help with a small relocation package – nothing ongoing, but a one-time sum that really helped with assimilating into life in Singapore. And then, once I arrived, they have a really great network of people working in our offices here that were able to introduce me to apartment agents to find a place to live or recommend different restaurants to try. So it was a really great base of people already here, and that was really useful.
Carlie: So how did you find Singapore?
Jonathan: It’s a fascinating place. It’s really an anomaly of a country in a lot of ways. If I were to draw a comparison, maybe the closest one would be Israel. Because Singapore, it’s kind of an invented nation, in and of its own right, if you go all the way back 52 years, to its first declaration of independence. And it’s incredible that the leadership here and the people have taken a tropical island – it doesn’t really have any natural resources – and turned it into this hub of finance and globalization and technology that it is today.
It’s an incredible place. It’s very diverse, you’ve got people from all over the world here, it’s truly a hub of globalization. And even what I would call the original or the native cultures here, there’s four of them – there’s the Chinese culture, which is very prevalent; there’s Malay culture of course, because Singapore was originally part of Malaysia; and then there’s also Indonesian that’s quite prevalent; and then also Indian, a very large Indian population here. And you take those four and you fuse them all together, the foods, the language, the religious customs, the culture, and it creates a really exciting mix. And that’s not even including all of the immigrants that have come here. So I love it. It’s a very interesting place.
Carlie: Obviously, there are a lot of differences between Western and Asian culture. What did you find most notable upon your arrival in Singapore?
Jonathan: That’s a great question. It’s one of the things that really first stood out to me when I first moved here, and definitely when I first started working. There’s probably three or four main things that I would say are quite notable. The first is really, in Asia, there’s more of an emphasis on collectivism, and the importance of keeping harmony within a group over just being a more individualistic person and taking that kind of a mindset. So having that kind of harmony, it’s so important, and what happens often is avoidance of conflict or conflicting opinions is something that is kind of looked down on, and a lot of people really try to avoid it.
And that really came in stark contrast for me, coming from America, where individualism and creativity is almost paramount in American and in Western culture. Integrating into Asian culture, it’s often quite different. You have to follow what the group wants to do, you have to follow authority and hierarchy very, very closely, as those are the most important things in this kind of society.
In addition, I would say the level of creativity is different, it’s channeled different. I wouldn’t necessarily say that creativity is not encouraged here – it certainly is. But because of these ingrained cultural values of kind of groupthink and having harmony within one group, breaking outside of the box and outside of the norms of society is really something that not many people do, and not many people dare to do. Because there might be different consequences that arise as a result of that.
Carlie: So did you find you had to curb aspects of your personality, or change, I suppose, the way you would normally interact with colleagues back home, for example, to suit this new culture that you were living in?
Jonathan: A little bit, a little bit. One of the good things about working at somewhere like LinkedIn is it’s a multinational organization. We have a very diverse mix of people. And it’s also an American company. So the American-led culture of pushing the boundaries and being creative is still pervasive, even in other offices around the world, no matter where you go.
But I would say more on the local level, when I’m interacting with the local colleagues, I did find that I have to reign in myself a little bit, and not always voice my opinions if they were extremely controversial or counter to what everyone else was thinking. And sometimes that just happened subconsciously I noticed over time, just because I found that if I really did speak out and try to push things in a different direction, sometimes people were not as receptive to it. And I think that’s mostly due to a cultural barrier there. So I adjusted my behavior a little bit, but due to the company culture, I didn’t have to that significantly.
Carlie: And a few years on now, Jonathan, do you feel well integrated into local culture in Singapore?
Jonathan: It’s interesting. I’ll break it up into two parts. In terms of how do I feel settled into Singapore, I feel like I’m quite well settled in. I have a very good base of friends here, involved in a few different organizations here, love exploring the city and also exploring the region. And also, the great thing about Singapore is it’s very easy to settle in. The public infrastructure here is really world-class, so you don’t need to get a car. It’s very convenient to get around by public transport or by Uber. Food is pretty cheap and readily available. It’s a very easy place to live. It’s also quite safe, very politically stable. And these things are important.
But in terms of actually integrating into the local culture, which I would classify as more of the indigenous, Singaporean culture that’s been around for decades, that I don’t feel like I’ve integrated as well as I could. And part of that is just due to the fact that sometimes it’s actually really difficult to make local friends here. Because Singapore is very unique in that a lot of the population here is actually foreigners or migrants, and only about … I think the last stats I saw was only about 50 per cent, maybe 60 per cent are actually locals. And so what I found is, for better or for worse, a lot of locals, they will stick together in their own cliques, and then foreigners also stick together in their own cliques. Not true for everybody, but on the whole, I would say it’s pretty true.
So you meet a lot of people here that, they find it very easy to kind of lapse into living in an expat bubble, where they don’t really communicate with anybody local, outside of maybe their company and people on public transport, or something like that. So in terms of integrating into local culture, I would say I’ve made a few local friends, but not as many as I would have expected coming in. Some of that is just due to, again, the cultural backgrounds and the social structure of the society here.
Carlie: I think that actually can be said of many expat experiences around the world.
Carlie: As you said, there is that expat bubble which you can very easily and happily exist in in another country. And it’s not a bad thing to do. But depending on what you want to get out of your experience, how long you intend to stay, how much you value that interaction with the local community – maybe it will be satisfying, and maybe you won’t be satisfied with that.
Jonathan: Absolutely. And one way that … some of the best ways that I found for making local friends is just finding different groups with people with common interests, and getting involved in them. So for example, I’m pretty interested in technology and startup culture, and so I’ve gone to a lot of events here around the startup community, met a lot of great local friends here, and then on the athletic side, my favorite sport is basketball. So I’ve found a couple of groups of locals that play basketball here, and that’s been a great way to meet people.
So sometimes, it’s … yeah, you’re completely right. If you don’t really break out of the bubble that you’re in, a lot of times it’s very hard to make local friends. So I find the best way is find some kind of affinity, an affinity group, whether it’s a sports team, whether it’s an event, whether it’s a language club – anything like that – and meet people where they’re at. And oftentimes, it becomes much easier.
Carlie: Jonathan, was there any specific – or was there any significant – language barrier for you, moving to Singapore. You said it’s quite a multicultural society, with people from so many backgrounds from all over the world. Does that mean that there wasn’t really any language issues when you went to Singapore?
Jonathan: Yeah, I would say that’s accurate. The lingua franca here is English. So most people speak English for business, and even out at restaurants or food centers here, if you order in English, you’re going to be just fine. I would say other than English, Mandarin is very prevalent. There’s a huge Chinese population here. But if you move here for a job and you only speak English, you’re going to be just fine.
Carlie: I did read on your website that you’ve since left your job at LinkedIn but you remain in Singapore. So what are you doing now?
Jonathan: Now I have recently started up a personal coaching and small business consulting practice. So I’ve been working with small businesses on web design, branding, social media marketing, digital marketing, and things like that. Right now I’m focusing on businesses that are either in Singapore and they’re looking to expand into North America or businesses in North America that are looking to expand into Singapore and into the greater Asia market.
I’m also doing a little bit of a personal coaching practice on the side, helping out other entrepreneurs or individuals that are also looking to move abroad and take their entire life and their career overseas.
Carlie: You mentioned at the start of our chat that Singapore is a really great tech and business hub. What makes Singapore so good for starting up a business?
Jonathan: One thing is – I would say the biggest thing is, actually – the government makes it really easy. There’s not a lot of bureaucracy and paperwork to get filed when you first start up the business. It’s very simple – you just file a few papers, set it up with the government, and you’re off and running. The other thing is the lack of bureaucracy here. So if you’re running a business and you run into a tax issue, a regulatory issue, something like that, in any other country, it’s often really hard to navigate the bureaucracy and the political-legal system, it’s quite tricky. But here, it’s extremely efficient, as with most things here in Singapore. And a lot of the lawmakers, the regulatory officials, they’re all very easy to work with. And then also, there’s quite low corporate taxes here, which makes it very convenient.
The last thing that’s very useful for starting a business here is there’s already a very well established ecosystem of funding. If you’re running a startup and you need funding, there’s lots of venture capital firms and individual entrepreneurs here. There’s a pretty thriving and growing startup scene, and there’s a lot of talent to pull from. Some of the world’s best universities are actually located here in Singapore. So there’s a pretty big talent pool as well.
Carlie: You mentioned another thing you’re doing is consulting with people looking to move abroad and move their careers abroad for the first time. What did you identify as a need with this particular market?
Jonathan: That’s a great question. Originally, the idea came about when I was thinking of what kind of needs I had when I first moved abroad. And one of the biggest things was there was no consolidated resources on moving abroad, especially for young adults and for millennials. There’s a lot of executive placement firms and things like that out there, but not a lot of either people or companies that are demystifying the process for people in my age bracket. And so, that was one of the biggest needs – there was no consolidated resources.
And then the other one was a lot of times, the hardest part in moving abroad is unless you’re quitting your job altogether and just moving abroad, it’s really hard to land that first job in another country. So that, I would say, is the biggest need that I want to solve for. Obviously, there’s a lot of resources out there to find a job these days, but the actual how of getting there – how do you network, how do you distinguish yourself from other candidates that are already in the country you want to move to – a lot of these things are kind of a black box to those of us that haven’t moved overseas before. So that’s what I’m looking to solve for now.
Carlie: I think back to when I moved to London, and there were so many things I just took for granted that, even in London, must be the same as they are in Australia. And yet, it took eighteen months just to get into the field I wanted to work in, because I was so ignorant about, for example, how recruiters worked. Because it’s not something we really do much of in Australia, in the industries we worked in. I didn’t know what the job roles were even properly called that I wanted to apply for in the UK. And there were so many things I took for granted that I should just know that really slowed me down.
Jonathan: Absolutely, yeah. And those are the things that are tricky for all of us. And sometimes I find without that personal guide or somebody who’s been there before and they can let you know about what these pitfalls are, it can take a lot longer than it really should to make the move.
Carlie: Well, it’s really great that you’re demystifying that for people. Jonathan, finally, what would be your three main pieces of advice for anyone looking to move to Singapore or anywhere else overseas?
Jonathan: Let’s see. The first thing I would say is make sure you have a decent amount of cash reserves or savings on hand when you first get here, because there’s a lot of what I would call startup costs for setting up your life overseas, but especially in Singapore – it’s one of the most expensive countries in the world. So probably plan on bringing at least five, six months of income or living expenses here, because a lot of times, when you have to rent an apartment here, you need to, as a deposit, pay two to three months’ rent, which can run from $5,000-10,000 in most cases.
The second thing I would say, if you’re moving to Singapore, I would say try networking as much as you can with people. If you’re not in Singapore already, even if you’re looking to move to China, Japan, whatever, try and do a lot of networking on the ground in the US or the UK or wherever you happen to be living at the moment. And try and make as many connections as you can in the city that you intend to move to. That way, when you get there, you have not necessarily a support base, but a variety of people that you can reach out to for help, if you run into issues with bureaucracy or you can’t find a place to live or … you name it. I’ve found that to be pretty useful.
And then, in terms of the third thing I would recommend doing before you move to any country – it may sound funny or counterintuitive, but it’s actually something a lot of people overlook – if you want to move to London or you want to move to Singapore or Hong Kong, I would really recommend actually going there and visiting before you move. [laughs] I know that sounds funny, but you would be surprised at how many people…
Carlie: Don’t do that. Yeah. [laughs]
Jonathan: Don’t do that. They think, “I’m going to move to Paris,” or “I’m going to move to Dubai, and it’s just going to be amazing. I’ve heard so many good things, and all the videos I see on YouTube look so great.” But then they get there, and they’re like, “Oh, wow. There’s certain aspects of the culture here that I can’t stand,” or “I don’t like the weather.”
So I think doing a test drive of wherever you intend on living is a really, really good idea, no matter where you want to move. So when I was thinking of moving to Singapore, about a year in advance of even applying for jobs, I made a trip out to both Singapore and Hong Kong, because I was considering moving to both of them. And for about a week to ten days in each city, I didn’t do anything touristy, I just tried to replicate what I thought my life would look like if I moved here. And then, at the end of the trip, I reflected back, and was like, “Okay, how did I actually like this?”
And that was one of the biggest factors that led me to consider moving to Singapore rather than Hong Kong. I enjoyed it a lot more here. So that’s something I would recommend that everybody do – if they’re able to.
Carlie: Jonathan, thanks so much for the chat today and sharing your experiences in Singapore and some incredibly useful tips for anyone looking to move abroad.
Jonathan: Absolutely. Thanks for having me on, Carlie. It was a pleasure.
Carlie: That’s it for today. You can learn more about Jonathan’s business and his travels on his website. It’s ontradeandtravel.com.
If you’d like to ask questions or share your own experiences of living in Singapore, head over to expatfocus.com and follow the links to our forums or Facebook groups. Remember, you can check out more podcast episodes at expatfocus.com/podcast. They’re also on iTunes. And I’ll catch you next time.